Student-centered philosophies of education emerged as a response to the limitations of traditional, authoritarian models of education. Instead of establishing schools as places where a fixed base of knowledge is passed from teachers to students, these philosophies encourage cooperation between students and teachers in order to find the best answers to questions facing modern-day learners. According to these philosophies—progressivism, social reconstructionism, existentialism—because the world is constantly changing, students should seek answers through hands-on, experiential learning.


The progressivism philosophy of education stresses the following:

  • Experiential learning. Progressive schools give children the chance to learn by doing. Art rooms, wood-working shops, kitchens, and science laboratories are features of progressive schools.
  • The scientific method. Students are expected to pursue answers to their questions through problem solving and critical thinking, and are rarely expected to find their answers in a book.
  • Intrinsic motivation. Rote memorization is discouraged because students don’t see what they’re doing as intrinsically valuable—they simply have to take the teacher’s word for it and work toward extrinsic results.

Progressivism in education has its roots in the philosophical criticism of European philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding from 1689, he stressed the importance of experiential learning, writing that all reason and knowledge come from personal experience.

Rousseau also criticizes educators who teach by requiring students to merely memorize facts in his 1762 book In Emile, or On Education: “You think you are teaching him what the world is like; he is only learning the map; he is taught the names of towns, countries, rivers, which have no existence for him except on the paper before him.”

John Dewey was the American educational reformer who was largely responsible for progressivism in education as we know it. He was a strong advocate of pragmatism, preferring proven evidence over beliefs. Dewey brought pragmatism to education, asserting that a reliance on an unchanging canon of knowledge hurts a student’s ability to thrive in an ever-changing, modern world. To Dewey, progressivism in education was deeply rooted in American democracy: there was no room for authoritarian models of education in a democratic society.

Progressivism in the Classroom: The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education

In 1907, educational reformer Marietta Johnson opened her school, called “The School of Organic Education.” She believed in a more natural approach to education, one that stimulated all five senses. She thought that students shouldn’t learn about nature, for instance, by sitting at their desks and reading textbooks. Her students went outside to make and record observations, and then confirm their findings with reference materials. The school rejected the authoritarian model of education that sometimes leads students to resent school, and actively fostered intrinsic motivation for learning by creating a learning environment that kids looked forward to.

Now named “The Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education,” the school is still active at its original location in Fairhope, Alabama. Students participate in experiential learning classes such as music, art, pottery, and yoga. Advocates for the school report that students willingly arrive early to classes and complain about having to leave at the end of the day.

Social Reconstructionism

The social reconstructionism philosophy of education stresses the following:

  • Improving and reforming society. Social reconstructionists emphasize that education can change the world for the better. School is seen as the logical place to inform citizens at a young age and avoid societal problems.
  • Social purpose. Social reconstructionists see experiential learning as having a broad scope. School projects, for example, aren’t devised to satisfy individual needs—they’re designed to instill habits and values that are useful to the greater community. Students are encouraged to think about local, national, and international issues.
  • Democracy in the classroom. Social reconstructionism in education encourages teachers to guide a meaningful dialogue among students, but not to tell children how to think or what to believe. Teachers are facilitators of discussion; their role is to get students invested in society’s issues while encouraging analysis and suggesting new perspectives.

Inspired by John Dewey’s progressivism, Theodore Brameld helped develop social reconstructionism in the 1930s. As he later articulated in his 1965 book Education as Power, Brameld identified education as having two roles—to transmit culture and to modify culture: “When American culture is in a state of crisis, the second of these roles—that of modifying and innovating—becomes more important.” Brameld’s 1945 book Minority Problems in the Public Schools audaciously confronted issues such as prejudice, discrimination, and economic exploitation. As a teacher, Brameld had no qualms about encouraging students to wrestle with these issues and their underlying causes.

According to Brameld, a society’s core values aren’t set in stone. In keeping with Dewey’s pragmatic approach to education, Brameld believed that values must be constantly scrutinized and tested to determine their true merit and possibly give way to more practical ideas.

George Counts wanted teachers to be the leaders of this kind of social (and economic) change. In his 1932 book Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?, Counts advocated that schools go beyond simply encouraging social responsibility and democracy. Instead, schools should restructure the American society and economy as we know it.

Social Reconstructionism in the Classroom: What Happened?

Only remnants of social reconstructionism exist in today’s elementary, middle, and high schools. It can be found in student government, clubs, and other extracurricular activities much more than in the classroom.

The secularization of U.S. public schools was the root cause of the downfall of reconstructionism. As schools strived to be religiously and politically neutral, they no longer encouraged students to confront social justice issues, and there was no room for social reconstructionism in schools.

And as historian Lawrence Arthur Cremin suggested in a 1977 paper, reconstructionists didn’t value other avenues for reaching young citizens: family, church, media, and industry. They only focused on the classroom as a place to influence children to improve society. Once their ideology was squeezed out of schools, reconstructionists found themselves up a creek without a paddle.

The 1930s writing of Dewey himself seems to anticipate the ultimate failure of the movement. He wrote that the educational system isolated itself from other institutions, and he believed the secularization of schools was a deliberate effort by religious institutions to shield themselves from the implications of scientific and historical progress. Without the ability to challenge any mainstays of society, schools became complacent, and they were increasingly at risk of being exploited by special interest groups. He wrote, “Our educational undertakings are left without unified direction and without the ardor and enthusiasm that are generated when educational activities are organically connected with dominant social purpose and conviction.”


The existentialist philosophy of education stresses the following:

  • Freedom. Kids should be afforded free will with the expectation that they will respect the free will of others. Cursing at school is an example of acceptable expression, while calling someone a nasty name is not considered acceptable.
  • Development of the individual. Existentialists believe that students should be given the power to define themselves as individuals, and an adult’s role as an educator should involve encouraging, but not dictating, this journey.
  • Subjective view of success. When it comes to achievement, students aren’t expected to live up to anyone’s expectations besides the expectations that they have for themselves.

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s conception of existentialism was based on the concept that “existence precedes essence.” This means that one’s individuality (existence) should take precedence over one’s artificial essence, the cumulative result of society’s attempts to assign one an identity. An individual should be free to define his or her own “true essence” by independently defining life’s meaning.

Existentialism in education focuses on giving students the ability to develop their own creativity and personal modes of self-expression. In schools that incorporate existentialism, historical figures are never held up as unassailable models of virtue or behavior, but as figures for students to analyze and explore. The same is true of the existentialist approach to art—established models are there to inspire students and enable them to unleash their own personal creativity and imagination.

Career-oriented education is seen as a means for students to become aware of their individual talents and potential, with “success” as a concept that’s open to interpretation by the student. Progressive educator and existentialist Alexander Sutherland Neill is noted for saying that he’d rather see his educational efforts produce a “happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar.”

Existentialism in the Classroom: The Summerhill School

Founded by Alexander Sutherland Neill in 1921, the Summerhill School is based on Neill’s principle, “The function of a child is to live his own life—not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, not a life according to the purpose of an educator who thinks he knows best.” At his school—still active today in Suffolk, England—students are allowed to attend classes as they please, and all lessons are optional in accordance with Neill’s principle, “freedom, not license.” School rules and discipline are both determined democratically, with students having the same voting rights as staff members.

Proponents of the school argue that this freedom allows for classes to be more rigorous. Neill observed that students learned more quickly and deeply because they were intrinsically motivated, learning by choice, rather than to earn extrinsic results.

Critics of the school argue that the perceived lack of structure ill-equips students for the “real world,” which includes the job market and society at large. However, advocates argue that because students are expected to be in control of their own lives at the school while playing an active role in a functioning, democratic community, students leave the school with a high degree of empathy, maturity, and ability to think critically.

Student-Centered Philosophies Today

Although these three student-centered philosophies of education may have been more prominent in the past, their influence can still be seen today. There may be only one School of Organic Education and one Summerhill School, but the spirit behind them persists in secular and non-secular schools around the world.